Radical Rondine: 1939 Gilera 500 Rondine

We take a look at the championship-winning 1939 Gilera Rondine, the world’s first 4-cylinder Superbike.

| January/February 2018

1939 Gilera 500 Rondine
Engine: 492cc liquid-cooled DOHC inline four (inclined 60 degrees forward), 52mm x 58mm bore and stroke, 7.2-7.5:1 compression ratio, 80hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Carburetion: Weber w/Roots supercharger
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: Magneto ignition
Frame: Tubular perimeter w/engine as stressed member
Suspension: Girder fork front, swingarm rear w/horizontal springs and adjustable friction dampers
Brakes: SLS drum front and rear
Tires: 3 x 21in front, 3.25 x 20in rear
Weight: 400lb (182kg)
Fuel capacity: 5.8gal (22ltr)

Honda transformed motorcycling when it released the CB750 in 1969, its radical multi-cylinder design launching the era of the Seventies Superbike. But was it as radical as the very first across-the-frame 4-cylinder?

That bike would be the Italian Rondine, developed in the 1930s. How radical was the Rondine? Try this: water-cooling versus the original CB750’s air-cooling; double-overhead camshafts versus Honda’s single-overhead cams; forced-induction supercharging instead of a bank of four conventional carburetors.

To be sure, the Rondine was a specialist racer, but all modern across-the-frame 4-cylinder motorcycles owe a debt of gratitude to the original version. To appreciate how advanced it was, one need only look at the history books: The Rondine won the 1939 European championship, the precursor to the post-World War II Grand Prix World Championship.

Free thinkers get working

The Rondine’s design dates back to the early 1920s, and was developed by young Italian engineers Carlo Gianini and Piero Remor. It wasn’t the first 4-cylinder motorcycle, as Belgium’s FN and America’s Henderson companies had been making them at least a decade earlier.

However, both those designs were mounted in-line with the frame, making for a long motorcycle with an engine that tended to overheat its rear cylinders for lack of air flow. Initially an air-cooled, single-overhead cam four, the Rondine showed promise, producing around 28 horsepower, around 10 more than its rivals.

12/29/2017 5:53:05 PM

thank you for a delightfully detailed article - most folks do not realize just how advanced things were in the 30s, and how advances in metallurgy and manufacturing techniques have made this type of power reliable and affordable for the everyman.

bike on highway

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